Millions of Indians are voting in the second phase of the country’s staggered general elections amid a heightened security presence in Indian-administered Kashmir.
More than 155 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, which cover 97 parliamentary constituencies across 13 states.
Voting began in parts of Kashmir amid boycott calls by separatist leaders, who have termed the elections an illegitimate exercise under military occupation. Authorities have shut down internet and deployed thousands of additional paramilitary troops in the region in the wake of a deadly attack in Pulwama in February.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has used Kashmir as one of the top issues of his campaign and played up the threat of rival Pakistan, especially after the February suicide bombing that killed 40 soldiers. The bombing brought nuclear rivals India and Pakistan close to the brink of war.
The first phase of polls saw low voter turnout in the disputed region, which has witnessed renewed violence in recent years.
“There is no interest or any enthusiasm about elections in Kashmir. The day simply means we are caged. There is so much military presence everywhere that one fears to go out, not to think about casting his vote,” said Waseem Ahmad, 34, a businessman in the region’s Srinagar city.
“In the last few years, we have seen the situation going from bad to worse. We have lost faith in elections. In no way they have changed our situation till now.”
In Srinagar which goes to the polls today, the security forces have set up scores of mobile checkpoints and spread barbed wire.
We have lost faith in elections. In no way they have changed our situation till now
WASEEM AHMAD, 34, A BUSINESSMAN IN SRINAGAR
“The deployment is too heavy as no chances are being taken,” a senior police official told Al Jazeera. “Our priority is to ensure smooth polling without any violence.”
Voting was expected to be brisk in the Hindu-dominated Udhampur constituency of the region.
The elections began last week and will end next month in a giant exercise involving almost 900 million people, who are expected to elect 543 members to the lower house of parliament called Lok Sabha.
Also voting on Thursday are Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states in the south, where tens of thousands lined up to cast their ballots.
Voting in a constituency in Tamil Nadu was cancelled altogether after $1.5m cash was seized by authorities. It is the first time a ballot has been cancelled during an election over suspected vote-buying, officials said.
The main opposition Congress party and its allies need to win big in the southern states if they hope to defeat Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“If the non-BJP parties perform well in these two states, then they would still be having a chance of forming a non-BJP government at the centre,” said Sanjay Kumar, director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, a think-tank based in the capital, New Delhi.
In northern Uttar Pradesh state, election officials directed authorities to provide drinking water and sun shelters at polling stations to cope with the scorching summer heat, said Lakku Venkateshwarlu, the state’s chief electoral officer.
At a college in Agra, less than two kilometres from the Taj Mahal, dozens of voters waited in line as polls opened.
“I came to vote for a good candidate as our country is growing, I want a good outcome,” 28-year-old craft worker Azad Ali told AFP after casting his ballot.
Security was also tight in West Bengal, where 15,000 troops were on duty in three constituencies voting on Thursday.
Votes will be counted on May 23 and the results are expected the same day.